April 1, 1996 in Nation/World

Montana Besieged By Media It’s A New Whirled Order For Once-Sleepy Region

Tom Kenworthy Washington Post
 

And on the seventh day of the standoff between federal law enforcement authorities and the Montana freemen, CBS’ “Face the Nation” was broadcast from QD’s Cafe in Jordan.

If anyone in this remote ranching and wheat-growing region of Eastern Montana possibly had any lingering doubts the area was in the midst of a full-fledged media invasion, they certainly were erased when Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and local prosecutor Nickolas Murnion strapped on mikes in the back room of QD’s and went live with correspondent Phil Jones in Washington.

Since last Monday, when two leaders of the militantly anti-government freemen’s movement were snared in an FBI undercover operation at a 960-acre ranch 30 miles northwest of here, Jordan, population 450, has been under siege.

Not even the annual walleye fishing tournament on Fort Peck Reservoir nor the predator shoot held on Super Bowl Sunday compares with the stampede of state and federal law enforcement agents and reporters and camera crews last week.

At the Hell Creek Bar, a roomy, friendly saloon graced by a grandiose Victorian-era cherry wood arch and cabinet stretching 20 feet behind the bar, the media sign-up sheet maintained by owner Joe Herbold is up to 76 names and climbing.

The Hell Creek, which never seems to close, has become a kind of local pressroom as reporters rotate between town and the freemen’s “Justus Township” to squint across the wheat stubble at the isolated ranch house where as many as 20 freemen remain surrounded by a loose blockade of FBI and Montana Highway Patrol cars.

The arrest last week of LeRoy M. Schweitzer, 57, and another leader of the freemen, Daniel E. Petersen Jr., 53, on numerous charges of threatening public officials and financial fraud, prompted the standoff. On Saturday, Richard Clark, another member of the group, was taken into custody at Grass Range, Mont.

In town, the quiet of a Sunday morning is broken by the diesel hum of the television satellite trucks parked in the driveways of local residents who have, amid the scarcity of motel rooms, rented out their homes. With just two small motels in Jordan, public accommodations filled up long ago, and the hospitable and enterprising residents are renting out rooms at $50 a night.

Time magazine stringer Pat Lawson, a Montana native, enjoyed a crucial advantage: His cousin lives here. But Lawson is sleeping in a bus in his cousin’s barn, and between reporting forays, he is helping out with the calving.

For a while, motel space was short even in Miles City, an 84-mile drive to the south, where many media crews are staying.

In Billings, 250 miles to the southwest, car rental agents still are wondering what hit them and what has happened to all those cars that were supposed to be returned by now.

Michelle Sahli, a customer service representative with Hertz, says her lot was empty by Wednesday and 20 cars are overdue. “We’ve been cleaned out, and no one has had cars all week,” said Sahli.

Former FBI Director William H. Webster suggested Sunday that the standoff is receiving too much publicity. “The press is building on ancient history, maybe not making the distinctions that should be made. … We’ve got armies of press out there watching every move that’s taking place,” he said on ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley.”

“I think the Department of Justice and the FBI … have worked very hard this time not to be seen as a huge army about to descend on women and children.”

On the same program, militia leaders appealed for calm. “Don’t come to Montana,” John Parsons of the Tri-States Militia told other militia members. “Stand down. Stay home. Watch it. Make sure that it doesn’t lead into another Waco or another Ruby Ridge.”


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